Must Read: China Airborne by James Fallows


Greg Waldron


Depending on who you talk to, China is either the graveyard or the future for major airframers like Boeing and Airbus. It will also, supposedly, be the world’s greatest market for both general and business aviation, with millions of Chinese taking to the skies for pleasure and business.

In China Airborne, journalist and avowed aviation enthusiast James Fallows tries to make sense of how commercial and general aviation have evolved in China, the current state of China’s aerospace sector, and what the future may hold.

China Airborne is fun to read and well written. The hardcover version is just 236 pages long and I finished it in two days. While those unfamiliar with China’s aerospace sector will learn a great deal, old China hands may be familiar with a good bit of the material Fallows covers.

Aside from discussing early Chinese aviation pioneers – one of whom was Boeing’s first chief engineer – Fallows talks about the different evolutions of aviation in the USA and China. In the USA general aviation grew along with aviation technology itself, with GA airfields dotting the country. In China the military has always controlled the airspace, restricting airliners to very specific corridors and making general aviation a non-starter.

Fallows goes into some detail about the important role US companies such as Boeing and institutions such as the FAA have played in the development of air safety in China since the 1980s. In the chapter about Chinese indigenous airliners (‘China’s own Boeing’), I smiled to come across comments from eponymous aerospace sector punditRichard Aboulafia, who produced perhaps the most memorable quotation from the book:

“We know that this plane, the ARJ21, is completely useless. It amounts to a random collection of imported technologies and design features flying together in loose formation.”

The most disappointing aspect of the book was the last chapter, which is basically a general essay on Chinese society and China’s place in the world. This chapter is very readable and interesting, but the avgeek in me was hoping for more about airplanes.

Nonetheless, China Airborne is well worth the time. Great stuff.

Follow me on Twitter: @AsiaJetWatch



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